Crazy for Kanji Book Review
Let’s get something out of the way first: This book was not written to teach you Japanese Kanji. This book was written to teach you about Japanese Kanji. The author really is “Crazy for Kanji” (Amazon), and she has learned a lot about the subject. She is interested in everything about Kanji and has taken the time to research and learn many different things about Kanji. And even though this book was not written to teach you Kanji, you are bound to learn more than a few here and there. That is, I guess, only if you don’t already know all the kanji. But then, who knows all the kanji?
I think this is a good book if you are really trying to learn to read Japanese, and you would like to learn Kanji. This book will teach you about where Japanese Kanji came from, some history, how to look up Kanji in Japanese dictionaries, how to figure out the correct pronunciation, and much more. Clocking in at about 200 pages, the book has 7 chapters. Besides the Preface and Introduction, these chapter titles are as follows:
- Kanji in all their Glorious Variability
- The Architecture of a Character
- Compounding the Pleasure
- What Kanji Say About Japan
- Japanese Feelings About Kanji
- Double Happiness
- Ten Tips for Studying Kanji
In the preface, the author explains how she began studying, and fell in love with, kanji. The preface has sections like: Words You’ve Heard, Place Names, Tongue Twisters, Bloopers, and Atari and Other Brand Names. These sections are samples of Japanese words that you already know, and the kanji for those words.
An example of an interesting thing about kanji, the author explains, is that kanji helps those learning Japanese to understand things easier. Kanji are very useful for the many homonyms in Japanese. Take for instance the kanji for “god”, “paper”, and “hair”; these words are all pronounced the same way. But they have different kanji. The Bloopers section gives some examples of these homonyms. There could be some very embarrassing situations when a pronunciation can mean a few different things. The kanji definitely helps determine the meaning for written Japanese.
The introduction describes the origins of kanji, kanji related to the Japanese “Alphabet”, how to draw kanji and their stroke order, pictograms or ideograms, compounds, and how to pronounce Japanese words. The chapters begin with a brief introduction of the topic of the chapter that is normally only a page or two. The rest of the chapters are made up of different types of sections the author uses. In the “Thematic Explorations” sections, the author picks a theme and describes kanji that follow that theme. “Just the Facts” sections explore facts about kanji. “Game” sections are just that, games that the author has devised to help you learn the facts about kanji. And then there are only a few “Spectacular Shapes” sections, about the shapes of kanji.
Chapter 1 explains okurigana, the kana that can be attached to kanji for verb conjugation and other reasons. It also helps explain how to determine if you should read the kanji with its Kun or On reading. And it also shows how kana were developed from kanji. Chapter 2 talks about how kanji are organized into a kanji, their classifications, and radicals. Chapter 3 talks about kanji compounds and how they are made. Chapter 4 talks about the cultural meaning behind a lot of kanji. Chapter 5 is about calligraphy, typefaces, kanji sound effects in manga, and kanji to avoid. “Kanji to avoid” you ask? Well, not really avoid, but sayings that are normally written in hiragana instead of kanji for some reason. Chapter 6 is about how you know some Chinese, or even Korean, if you know Japanese kanji. While the pronunciations will not be the same, and sometimes the meanings are not the same, you can understand some written Chinese by learning Japanese kanji. Chapter 7 contains tips for learning kanji, ten of them to be exact.
In this book you will learn that some kanji have many different On readings because they were ‘imported’ into Japanese from the Chinese language at different times in history. You will also learn that the Kun reading is the Japanese reading, and that is because the word, or concept, existed in Japanese before they acquired the kanji from China. Understandably, they would still want to use the pronunciation that they already have for that word.
You will also find out that sometimes the Japanese used Chinese kanji only for the pronunciation, and not the meaning of the kanji. Sometimes the kanji fit really well and describes the meaning well. For instance how 氷河 (ひょうが) uses the kanji for ice and river (older kanji for river; current is normally 川), to describe a glacier. The kanji fit the meaning. But the kanji for sashimi is a different matter; that kanji is 刺身 (さしみ). The first kanji, 刺, means something like ‘stab’, while the second, 身, means something like ‘somebody’. Stabbing somebody really doesn’t have anything to do with sashimi (raw fish). Closely related, 寿司 (すし), is another one. The first kanji means ‘lifetime’ and the second means ‘director’. Nothing to do with sushi.
If you want to learn a lot about kanji, I really do recommend “Crazy for Kanji“.